Brenda Swenson | Yellow Rose Negative Painting in Watercolor

There are many techniques to saving the “lights” of the paper. I have experimented with masking fluids and tapes to save the “lights” but found the end result was either harsh or cutout looking. I preserve the “lights” of the paper from the very beginning by painting around them… paint the negative space.

Negative painting is a unique approach of painting around an object to define it in a composition. When working in watercolor we have the challenge that other mediums do not. It’s what we don’t paint that becomes the most important element. Think of yourself as a stone carver, chipping away, until only the most precious lights remain.

I don’t use opaque paint colors for negative painting. Opaque paints are wonderful for accent marks (at the end) but not for glazing. The technique requires numerous glazes which will be-come muddy with opaque paints. To determine if your paints are opaque or transparent do a simple test. With a permanent marker draw a bold line across a piece of watercolor paper. With paint the consistency of cream over the line. Look at the paint over the black line. If the line is obscured at all it is opaque. The paint colors on the top line are opaque and the bottom line transparent.

Wet into Wet: Painting on a wet surface and letting colors blend.
Glazing: A transparent wash of color laid over a dry, previously painted area.


When I draw for a negative painting I am especially mindful of the space and shapes between things (negative space). I want to have shape and size variety. I draw enough to get the general shapes down but not bound by what I see. In fact it’s important to understand additional shapes will be developed in the painting process. Don’t over draw.

Selecting Colors
To determine which 3 colors I will use for the underpainting I make numerous color swatches. The swatches will contain a red, blue, and yellow. The colors do not need to be true primaries. When I mix the colors it is important to have the paint be the same consistence to encourage good mixing on the paper. I am looking for colors that have the underlying feeling of the subject matter. The 3 colors I selected are DANIEL SMITH: Quinacridone Gold (QG), Cobalt Blue (CB), and Quinacridone Rose (QR). You’ll see the 3 paint colors I selected on the bottom left.

Wet into Wet Underpainting
I wet the entire paper with clean water and introduce the 3 paint colors separately onto the wet paper (Quinacridone Gold (QG), Cobalt Blue (CB), and Quinacridone Rose (QR). I paint at an angle to encourage mixing as the paint runs down the paper. I don’t over work the surface with a paint brush but encourage the paint to mix on the paper. Let thoroughly dry.

Negative Painting / Glazing Begins
I will use the 3 original colors through out the painting process. I consider these my “mother colors” but I will add additional colors as the painting evolves. I start by painting hard edges against the rose and some of the leaves, and soften the edges with water as I move out from the subject. This is what I call the “adolescence of a painting”, because it often looks and feels awkward. Let thoroughly dry. I concentrate on the space and shapes between.

With each glaze I create new negative shapes and darker values. I sometimes soften edges with a light mist from a spray bottle while the paint is wet. Let thoroughly dry between glazes or colors will become muddy.

In the final stage I paint the darkest darks and smallest shapes. I use a rich deep green made with DANIEL SMITH Phthalo Turquoise and Italian Burnt Sienna. While the green mixture of paint is still wet on the paper I drop a small amount of Permanent Alizarin Crimson. The addition of this red livens up the greens. You can see an example of this directly beneath the left rose. I am selective to place my darkest darks near my lights to intensify the focal area. I finish with a few details.

Hope you find this information helpful and inspired to try your hand and brush at negative painting!

Happy Painting!
Brenda Swenson